Touch in the early stages of life may seem like a normal nurturing experience to some, but its effects could actually be much more than a simple nurturing experience, according to research that examines the influence of touch, and the effects of touch deprivation during infancy. The basic needs for human survival as described by Deane Juhan in his book “Job’s Body” are: “oxygen, liquid, food, rest, activity, bowel and bladder elimination, escape from danger, and avoidance of pain” (47). However, research reports that without tactile stimulation during infancy, chances of survival are slim, and those who may survive are highly likely to suffer negative physical emotional and behavioral consequences, suggesting that touch during infancy is a basic need for survival. Therefore, although touch is not considered a basic need for human survival, because of the physiological, psychological and behavioral complications touch deprivation, especially during infancy, can cause, it should be considered necessary for human growth and development.
Touch deprivation is discovered to be the cause of many cases of mortality. Around 1915 an observation was made that about 99% of infants in orphanages die within a year of admission, even with sufficient medical and dietary care (Juhan 43). These deaths were known to be the result of a disease called “mesmarus,” Greek for “wasting away” (Juhan 44). As one would hope, investigation into the cause of these deaths was being spurred in Europe and America, but similar cases where reported elsewhere. Rene Spitz documented what happened to 97 children in a South American orphanage when lack of funds reduced the amount of staff to care for children between the ages of three months and three years. Nurses where available only to change diapers, feed, and bathe the children. After a few months the children started showing signs of abnormality, resembling malnutrition, and after five months of this minimal tactile care, Spitz mentions that “Often, when a doctor or nurse would pick up an infant, it would scream in terror” (Sell). It is stated that the majority of children died from lack of touch and nurture, while the 21 who survived, suffered serious psychological damage. (Sell). At other orphanages it was reported that when extra staff were available to hold and care for the babies, mortality rates plunged, and so did “stunted growth” and “mental retardation” (Juhan 44). The “nutrient” that was left out of their reach was touch. Touch deprivation is described by the medical-dictionary online as:
Lack of tactile stimulation, especially in early infancy. If continued for a sufficient length of time, it may lead to serious developmental and emotional disturbances, such as stunted growth, personality disorders, and social regression. In severe cases a child who is deprived of adequate physical handling and emotional stimulation may not survive infancy.
Although touch is not considered to be as important as food and medicine, one can assume that lack of touch during infancy can cause death or growth retardation.
Many studies have been done on animals to gain insight into human nature and the relationship between touch and behavior. One of the most significant studies performed in relation to touch, was in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow, head of the Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. Harlow’s study was done on monkeys who were given two surrogate mothers, one made out of wire, and one made out of cloth. His studies show that in a stressful environment the monkey chose the comfort of the cloth mother, even above food, where the wire mother did not seem to provide even the slightest bit of comfort (Juhan 51). Without the cloth mother, the monkeys behaved frantically, “screaming their distress,” much like the behavior noted by Rene Spitz in the orphanage (Juhan 51). Touch deprived monkeys rock themselves and hit their heads to the ground; these movements are typical in the behavior of institutionalized and neglected children, and in autistic behaviorism, with autism being an illness growing in numbers in the United States (Juhan 51). Another part of Harlow’s study shows that when two monkeys who have been deprived of touch are put together to form a relationship, they attack each other and physically harm each other. Tests were done on monkeys; because there is such a close relationship between their behavior and that of humans, which raises questions about the cause of domestic violence. Facts about domestic violence in the USA, as stated by the office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, are shocking:
In 1992, the American Medical Association reported that as many as 1 in 3 women will be assaulted by a domestic partner in her lifetime — 4 million in any given year. Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. There are 16,800 homicides and $2.2 million (medically treated) injuries due to intimate partner violence annually, which costs $37 billion. (“Fast facts on domestic violence”).
When looking at the close resemblances between the behavior of monkeys and humans, and the statistics of domestic violence, the theory about touch deprivation as a cause of violence seems relevant, especially in societies where touch is associated with contamination, inappropriateness, and violation of privacy.
Further associations have been made between tactile deprivation and violence in humans. Dr. James Prescott, a neurophysiologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development states the following: “I believe that the deprivation of body touch, contact, and movement are the basic causes of a number of emotional disturbances which include depressive and autistic behaviors, hyperactivity, sexual aberrations, drug abuse, violence and aggression” (qtd. In Juhan 54). Prescott finds that cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence, and vice versa, those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no adult violence. His studies may be understood in light of observations done on two tribes of New Guinea. Members of the Arapesh tribe carry infants on a sling around their bodies all day long, nursing may continue up to three or four years, and every adult assumes this position of affection towards the children. The result is “easy, receptive and unaggressive adult personalities” (Juhan 55). The Mundugamor tribe is said to leave their babies in baskets and nurse with anger and hostility. They are known to be aggressive and hostile adults who live in distrust, and are cannibals (Juhan 55). The people of the United States have their own behavioral concerns, domestic violence being only one. Prescott reports of studies on child abuse, and mentions that “parents who batter their children have a history of touch deprivation” (CTV Toronto). He further implies that the design of the American prison system is making the [violence and crime] “problems” worse, because of the “isolation and deprivation which contributed to the problem in the first place” (CTY Toronto). Touch deprivation does not only lead to domestic violence, causing dysfunctional families, but on a bigger scale creates a dysfunctional society.
The importance of touch, especially during infancy, can be seen in terms of what actually gets communicated with touch. An interesting evaluation was done by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, examining the perception of human emotion through mere touch. Two strangers made contact through a barrier allowing only their arms to go through. One of the two had a list of emotions to convey through a one second contact to the stranger’s forearm, and the other was to guess the emotion. It was observed, that not even anger or disappointment was perceived as accurately as compassion. He states that compassion was guessed correctly 60% of the time, through no other means of communication but touch. Keltner marks this as significant, considering there is about an 8% chance for each emotion to be experienced. What is noteworthy about the organ of touch, the skin, is the vast amount of information it receives as the largest sensory organ of the body. To touch and feel does not only perceive physical sensations such as hot or cold, but also emotional sensations such as love and nurture. According to Deane Juhan, the skin can be perceived as the surface of the brain, since it acts as an interface between the body and the world, and thus, between our thought processes and our physical existence. It is through touch that most of an infant’s existence in this world is perceived and it is through this skin-to-skin contact, that babies convey subtle needs. (Goleman 4). Through this communication, the baby creates a sense of belonging and security and purpose, which can result in positive self esteem and body image, the opposite of “withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares, self-blame and aggression” seen in witnesses of violence (“Fast facts on domestic violence”). Compassionate touch during the early stages of life, especially when other sensory perceptions such as sight, hearing, taste, and smell are less developed, is a wholesome base of experience to start the life process with, and facilitates the communication of care and emotion that assists healthy development.
During the first years of life there are many obstacles to survival, that adequate care can overcome, but even with good care the occurrence of SIDS is a reality most mothers and caregivers are aware of. Yet it appears that regular touch and physical interaction could be preventative to SIDS. SIDS is the sudden death of an infant under one year of age that remains unexplained after a complete post-mortem investigation (Sears). Dr. Sears advises regular touch, or “attachment parenting” as one of the seven ways to prevent SIDS. Mothers who follow this method have reported the following: “I can read him,” “I’ve developed a sixth sense about my baby,” and “I’m so aware of her changing needs” (Sears). When African mothers where interviewed on why they wear their babies on slings on their own bodies, some of the response was that the babies grow better, are happier, cry less, and it makes it easier for the mothers. It is noted also that these mothers spoke from pure observation, and did not attend any parenting class or read any books to influence their answers. The constant tactile contact between the mother and baby seem to create a type of harmonious intelligence in the relationship between them, in which they are intuitive to each other’s affection, which is likely to have a positive influence on their adult relationships. The reason for these desirable effects are said to be because of the vestibular system which gets regulated by “babywearing.” The vestibular system is a system of fluid in the inner ear, which regulates the sense of balance during movement, such as when a baby is rocked or carried, and researchers believe that vestibular stimulation has a regulating effect on an infant’s overall physiology and motor development. Faster growths in the babies, a healthier level of oxygen in their blood, and more stable heart rates have been reported as result of vestibular stimulation (Sears). By being more in touch with one’s baby, literally and figuratively speaking, a mother can be more receptive to its needs, and thereby diminish chances of SIDS, and lead to a more harmonious relationship between mother and baby as well.
While touch deprivation can cause undesirable results, plentiful comforting touch can have many advantages to the development of an infant. Physically speaking, changes in growth rate, metabolism, memory, and motor development are a few benefits noted. Emotionally,children develop to have a positive self esteem, and on a social level, Dr. James Prescott sums up the implication for tactile stimulation by saying “presence of physical pleasure categorically inhibits violence” (Goleman 3). A study with premature infants indicates that there may even be economical benefits to tactile stimulation. Premature infants, who were massaged fifteen times a day, showed 47% faster weight gain compared to those babies not being massaged, even though they had the same amount of food (Goleman 1). The babies who were massaged, where discharged from the hospital on average six days earlier than those who were not massaged, resulting in $3,000 reduced hospital cost per baby (Goleman 1). Why figures like this are not a challenge to the policies of minimal touch in hospital services and nurseries, may be because of the lack of awareness about the benefits of early tactile stimulation. Much of the information goes lost in scientific journals, according to Dr. Sears, and is not presented in a practical way to caregivers. As Dr. Field reports : ”The standard policy in caring for premature infants has been a minimal-touch rule” (Goleman 2). The clear benefits of touch, observed by so called “uneducated” cultures, have been overlooked for so long by the scientific approach we are familiar with in the west, that it seems unlikely a change in procedure will be made. However, the research overwhelmingly supports the use of touch as a necessity for one’s growth and development.
The results of research regarding touch, point in the direction of compassionate touch as a great contributing factor to a wholesome life experience, showing benefits to the body and mind. Nevertheless, baby seats, toys and products, distancing mothers from their babies are made in abundance and sold, as a typical advertisement would accentuate “for your comfort.” Who would be the first to challenge the minimal-touch policy in hospitals and to whose advantage is the no- touch policy in schools? In fact, education about the appropriate use of touch and the benefits of compassionate touch may be a much healthier alternative to no touch at all. The complexity of the effects of touch, should be understood and can indeed be used to build societies of healthy children and adults, instead of the action of touch, being feared and misused. Maybe Prescott’s suggestions to involve compassionate touch to the prison system, instead of touch deprivation, may have real benefits to the healthy integration of inmates into the society. Considering the negative effects of touch deprivation, and the beneficial results of regular healthy touch, touch should be considered necessary for human growth and development.

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